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About Operation Smile and Cleft Conditions

What is Operation Smile?

Operation Smile revolutionized cleft surgery globally in 1982. With nearly four decades of experience as one of the largest surgical volunteer-based nonprofits, Operation Smile staff, its private-public partnerships and thousands of volunteers have improved the health and dignity of patients with cleft conditions, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live lives of greater quality and confidence.

While one cleft surgery can transform a child’s life in as little as 45 minutes, Operation Smile is committed to providing patients with health that lasts by being there to offer patients additional surgeries, dentistry, psychological services, speech therapy and other essential cleft treatments. Its training and education programs elevate local surgical standards and entire health systems, aid safe surgery and enable a global network to reach more people earlier in their lives. 

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Learn More About Cleft Conditions

What is cleft lip and cleft palate, and how often do cleft conditions occur?

A cleft condition is a gap in the mouth that didn't close during the early stages of pregnancy, and this happens more often than you may realize. It is estimated that, worldwide, a child is born every three minutes with a cleft condition — about one in every 500 to 750 births. Sometimes cleft condition can be easy to see because it’s an opening in the lip. Other times, it’s harder to tell if someone was born with a cleft condition because it’s an opening in the roof of their mouth, which is called the palate.

Why do cleft conditions happen and can they be be prevented? 

There are many risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a cleft condition. While some causes are still unknown, genetics and family history, pre-existing medical conditions, poor nutrition and exposure to harmful environmental substances can affect the healthy development of a baby. As a result, these factors could contribute to a baby being born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. 

While there are still many misconceptions surrounding the causes of cleft conditions, Operation Smile has teamed up with the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to conduct the International Family Study (IFS) to better understand why they happen and, hopefully in the future, find a way to ensure that no more people are born with cleft lip and/or cleft palate. 

Our IFS research has revealed a potential connection between smoke inhalation from cooking over an open flame and a significant increase in cleft conditions. Stay tuned as we continue to deepen our understanding of the causes of cleft lip and cleft palate. 

Five-year-old Loraine before receiving her cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile Philippines. Photo: Jessica Brandi Lifland.

Does a cleft condition cause health issues for a child?

Depending on the type and severity, a cleft condition can create severe health issues for a child if it's not treated. It's common for babies to have difficulty with feeding, which can lead to malnutrition or even starvation. Recurring ear infections can occur, which can lead to hearing loss. Jaw and dental development can also be affected. For people with cleft conditions, especially those with cleft palate, speech and language development can also be hindered. Children may also suffer from bullying and social isolation.

While cleft surgery is vital to ensuring a child will live a happier and healthier life, it acts as only a single step along the path of a patient's journey toward healing. This is why the comprehensive care we provide patients after surgery at our care centers in countries like Morocco, Colombia and India is essential for the people we serve.   

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be repaired?

With surgery, a child suffering from cleft lip and/or cleft palate can have a brand-new, beautiful smile. In an ideal situation, a pediatrician and a reconstructive plastic surgeon work with a child’s parents soon after the child’s birth to choose the best timing for surgery. Most surgeons agree that a cleft lip should be repaired by the time a baby is 3 months old, and a cleft palate should be repaired between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Several subsequent surgeries may also be required throughout one's childhood and adolescence. 

But for many of the patients and families we serve in low- and middle-income countries, early surgical intervention isn't an option due to lack of financial resources, access to qualified medical staff and other factors. Operation Smile remains dedicated to finding these families around the world and providing them with surgery and ongoing care earlier in life so that they can live happier and healthier lives. 

What does it cost to provide a surgery for a child with a cleft condition?

As little as $240 helps provide surgery to a child with a cleft condition. This is possible thanks to the generous contributions of medical professionals who volunteer their time and expertise, as well as corporations that donate critical supplies and equipment necessary for safe surgery. This cost includes expenses incurred for essential medical team members to be at a surgical program, the expenses for additional required supplies and cargo shipping costs.

How does Operation Smile differ in its approach to treating children with cleft conditions around the world?

No country nor community around the world is the same. That's why we work with local medical professionals, governments, hospitals and other nonprofits to create various models of surgical care. Together, we determine which solutions work best in order to reach as many children as possible wherever we work. We’re going to keep doing this and refining our approach as we move forward, as our goal is to give the most effective surgical care to patients worldwide. 

First and foremost, we bring the highest quality of care to every child. We were the first cleft surgical organization to support the World Health Organization's Safe Surgery Saves Lives initiative. Our Medical Global Standards is our commitment to ensuring that every patient cared for by Operation Smile will benefit from the same sophisticated equipment, procedures and highly trained, credentialed medical professionals, no matter where they live.

Does Operation Smile provide surgical care for children living in the United States who are born with cleft conditions?

In the United States, people in need of surgical intervention, including families affected by cleft conditions, have access to the necessary health care infrastructure, treatment and resources. However, Operation Smile works with individuals living in countries where this access to surgical care for cleft conditions often does not exist.

We are just one member of a larger community of health care providers working together to make sure that every individual born with a cleft condition has access to life-saving surgical care. For a list of resources available to U.S. citizens, please follow this link: https://cleftline.org

Where can I get additional information?

If you would like additional information regarding cleft lip and cleft palate, statistics and treatment, please contact us. 

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It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.